A normal football game lasts 60 minutes. This one was over after 13.
By then, the Green Bay Packers led Carolina 21-0, the cheeseheads were dancing at Lambeau Field and there was no doubt where this afternoon was headed for the Panthers. It was spiraling down a familiar drain, the one also used in the lopsided losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
But the more relevant question is this: Where is this team headed?
“Somehow, we’re still in first place,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said afterward, although he said it with a disgusted expression.
And it’s true. Carolina (3-3-1) technically didn’t lose any ground in the NFC South Sunday, since New Orleans (2-4) and Atlanta (2-5) lost, too. The Panthers’ .500 record remains the class of the NFL’s worst division.
But the fact remains that Carolina was publicly humiliated – again. And not only that, usually mild-mannered middle linebacker Luke Kuechly got kicked out of the game in the third quarter for elbowing an official he thought was another player.
Although Kuechly’s mistake was somewhat understandable, it was another error in a day filled with them for Carolina. You can’t go around slinging elbows and not expect that something bad will happen to you eventually.
“You’ve just got to keep your cool and do your best to walk away,” said Kuechly, who apologized to coach Ron Rivera for his actions.
Kuechly didn’t keep his head during one of his worst afternoons as a professional. And the NFL’s reigning defensive player of the year had another key mistake on Green Bay’s first drive when he jumped offside on a third-and-7 play, negating an interception by Roman Harper.
From there, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers quickly hit Jordy Nelson for a 59-yard touchdown, and the rout was on. By the time the Panthers’ sputtering offense made its initial first down, Green Bay already led 21-0.
If you had any Sunday errands to run or yard work to do, your afternoon had suddenly become quite free.
Olsen described the afternoon the best.
“If there was a mistake to be made that couldn’t be made, we made it,” he said. Olsen also called the Panthers’ various errors “just a lot of stupid stuff.”
But I wonder: Is it really just stupid stuff, or is it mostly that the Panthers aren’t very good?
Carolina’s defense – particularly its secondary – looks to me like a unit that is going to get burned repeatedly in the final nine games. This is a secondary playing like one of the worst units in the league. And this is a team that has given up 37 or more points in four of its past five games – an astounding statistic for what was the No. 2 defense in the NFL last season.
“At the end of the day, nobody’s coming to save us,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said.
“We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and make sure we’re all committed and we’re here and we want to get this thing right,” safety Thomas DeCoud said.
I asked Panthers coach Ron Rivera a simple question after this one: Is your defense good enough?
“They should be,” Rivera said.
On Sunday, the defense was not. Green Bay scored touchdowns on its first three possessions, and the rest of the game was only played because the NFL has no mercy rule.
As Packers coach Mike McCarthy would say later: “It’s a great day to be a Packer. ... Offensively, we did exactly what we wanted to. ... The defense controlled the line of scrimmage the whole game.”
The Packers led 38-3 in the fourth quarter. Carolina made the final score sound more respectable with a couple of late scores.
It wasn’t respectable, though.
Carolina is headed nowhere fast if that defense doesn’t get any better. It has to start with Kuechly, who is Carolina’s best defensive player but who this season now has more ejections (one) than he does interceptions or recovered fumbles (zero).
“I don’t think ‘concern’ is the right word,” Kuechly said afterward about the defensive problems. “We’ve just got to be consistent.”
I don’t think concern is the right word, either.
We’re long past concern by now.